Saturday, May 23, 2009

A day in Utica

Earlier today, my friend Doug and I took advantage of the three-day weekend to escape from our usual weekend routines and pay a visit to Utica, a city of approximately 60,000 people situated on the banks of the Mohawk River.

During the 19th century, Utica was a center of textile and garment production. The "union suit" -- the classic one-piece, typically red undergarment with button flap in the back -- was invented in Utica, and untold numbers of Union troops went into battle wearing Utica-made union suits. During the 20th century, the tool-and-die industry and consumer electronics were the city's mainstays. However, most of the factories are now gone, and Utica, like many upstate New York cities, is struggling to reinvent itself.

The city nonetheless has some remarkable assets, among them the little gem that led us to head west on the New York State Thruway this morning: the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which is named after three generations of the wealthy Utica family that endowed it. The institute's Museum of Art specializes in 19th century American decorative art and 18th, 19th, and 20th century American and European paintings and sculpture. Its holdings include Thomas Cole's first Voyage of Life series, many other Hudson River School paintings, and works by a veritable Who's Who of mid-20th century artists, among them Louise Bourgeois, Piet Mondrian, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O'Keefe, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.

The museum is housed in a striking 1960 building designed by Philip Johnson, an architect whose work I've often admired but whose youthful enthusiasms I simply cannot forgive. The building contrasts remarkably with its next-door neighbor, the Victorian-era Italianate home in which the Munson-Williams-Proctor family lived and which now showcases the institute's 19th-century decorative arts holdings, and the other 19th-century structures that dominate the streetscape. It nonetheless "works," in part because of the generous expanse of lawn that separates it from its neighbors.

The building's central sculpture hall and galleries are the perfect setting for the museum's 20th century artworks, and its judicious use of wood and stone and relatively small size make it feel airy yet intimate and inviting. I'm not a huge fan of Jackson Pollock, but his Number 2, 1949, is perfectly placed in the space framed by Johnson's double staircase.

After we left the institute, we drove the short distance to the campus of what is now known as the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center, the oldest state-operated psychiatric facility in New York. It opened in 1843 as the New York State Lunatic Asylum, and the original building, commonly referred to as "Old Main," is still standing. It may well be the best extant example of institutional Greek Revival architecture in the United States.

The Old Main building is 500 feet long. However, owing to the many trees on the Mohawk Valley campus, it's difficult for a photograph of the front of the building to convey just how massive it is. The above photograph captures only the building's central section and part of its eastern wing.

There are fewer trees behind the building. The above image, which was shot through the chainlink fence that surrounds Old Main, gives some sense of the length of the building's west wing and central section.

Old Main was vacated in 1978 and allowed to deteriorate. In 1998, the State of New York attempted to sell off disused parcels of Mohawk Valley and several other state psychiatric facilities, prompting fears that Old Main and other historically significant mental health facilities would be demolished. However, the Mohawk Valley parcel didn't sell, and the state opted instead to renovate part of the building for use as a State Office of Mental Health (OMH) records storage facility. This facility, which holds records that will either be transferred to the State Archives at some point in the future, destroyed at a predetermined time, or retained by OMH for research purposes as well as artifacts from now-defunct facilities, opened in 2005.

It's important to understand that only the first floor of the building has been renovated. The upper floors and other areas not used for records storage, such as the sun porches that cap the building's east and west wings, still need attention. Given the historical and architectural significance of the building, I hope that an appropriate use can be found for the remaining space within it.

My friend and I had a good time in Utica today, and our only regret is that, owing to the timing of our visit, we were not able to tour one of the few Utica factories that is still doing a booming business: the Matt Brewing Company, which produces the Saranac beers and soft drinks that upstate New Yorkers know and love. The company offers four tours a day every Monday-Saturday during the summer, but offers only a couple of tours a day during September-May. A return visit to Utica may be in order . . . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice summary of some of the high points of a beautiful, yet faded city.